I’m a character-focused writer. I’m hyper-aware of characters I meet, and can usually sense when one of them just . . . isn’t quite right. Bumping into a character like that, it’s like walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there. All you know is it was important. And it is. If you notice something’s wrong with your character, your reader will too.
In my years as a writer, I’ve noticed a few major issues that get overlooked, often masked by publishing contracts or a title on a TV screen. I’ll call them the Fatal Flaws. Not character flaws like Selfishness or Cowardice. Those are good. These Fatal Flaws are fatal not only to your character, but to your plot, prose, and readers’ interest.
Here’s the lineup:
1. The Thespian
This one is everywhere, especially in cinema. He’s an A-Class actor. Witty and eloquent, if he’s ever at a loss for words, it never lasts more than a few beats before he’s back with some deep nugget of truth. Imagine yourself reading a decently interesting bit of prose, relatively invested in what you’d seen. Then you come across The Line. You stop. You wonder if you read that right. You hope that you didn’t. Maybe that hope keeps you going, but oh, there’s a second Line. A thought circles in your head: “No real person would say this.”
2. The Sob Story
This one does just about anything to make the readers cry—regardless of whether or not it works. From divulging dark secrets to accidentally killing someone’s puppy in grade school, the Sob Story tries them all.
The Hero revealing some secret about themselves to their Love Interest. Or the Villain’s Monologue before the final showdown. Once either of these characters start talking, it just all comes out, despite their very real reservations, or the fact that this character’s been established as pathologically private. But hey, the backstory needs to be told, right?
Every writer wants to tap into reader empathy, usually through backstory. But if these revelations aren’t consistent with the character’s personality, or are unrealistic in the immediate setting, the reader will feel manipulated.
3. The Slacker
Wasted potential is as comfortable as sandpaper to me. And unfortunately, I see this a lot: a character fits perfectly into her story, has a goal that fits the theme, and a lot of ways she can grow. Then she goes nowhere. She fails to reach for that potential I saw in her. Worse, she finds superficial solutions to her problems and the writer tells me that this was what she really needed.
Now, I don’t know what’s best for all characters. But when you have a female lead with a Story Goal of getting stronger so she can compete with her male counterparts, you have established potential that the reader expects to see fulfilled. And if, in the end, this character is physically stronger, yet just as mentally/emotionally weak as when she started? And that problem is never addressed? This is the Slacker, a character not at work.
4. The Cheater
Have you ever invested yourself in a main character and his journey only to sit back and watch him cheat the system everyone else is stuck in? The Cheater is different from the Slacker in that he does move forward, but does so without trouble by sheer force of will. Or luck. Or whatever you want to call it.
Consider a Villain with Power A, which is stronger than the Hero’s Power B. The Hero could try to outsmart instead of out-muscle the Villain, or learn Power A himself. Better yet, he could try Power C, which is stronger than A and B but with a toll that makes you wonder if it’s worth it. But the Cheater takes his Power B and rides forward on the hope or assumption that he just can. And the Universe lends him a convenient hand. The Villain has an off day, or blatantly underestimates his opponent to the point of arrogant stupidity. Or the Hero lands the one-in-a-million shot to make the bad guy and his army fall like Imperial Droids. Either way, the Cheater slides through to his victory parade without breaking a sweat.
5. The Doppelgänger
Our last Flaw can only be detected by authors themselves. Worst part: he’s just as clever as you are—because he is you. He’s the threads of you, the writer, that you weave into your story—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. And when it’s not, it weakens your story and contributes to that lost feeling I mentioned earlier. The presence of a Doppelgänger is difficult to detect, especially if you’ve had little practice with writing personalities different from your own.
Say you need a boisterous, extroverted, live-in- the-moment male Hero. You are a quiet, introspective female author. Your Hero tends to spend a lot of time in his head, reflecting on philosophical concepts when he technically would be doing a chicken dance with a cardboard ad in front of a Chick-Fil-A. Probably waving at a total stranger without shame even after he realizes it’s not actually his mother. But the thoughtfulness seems natural to you—so it must be, right?
There are some surface solutions to these problems:
- The Thespian: Leave dramatic dialogue to cinema. Since mind-readers aren’t a thing, film-makers turn internal monologue into spoken thought, even if it’s not natural. Don’t imitate this.
- The Sob Story: Resist the urge to explain. Use deliberate hints of depth and emotion. Don’t overwhelm them with a tragic backstory they aren’t ready to care about.
- The Slacker: Plot out your character’s potential in advance. Don’t waste it or apply Band Aid solutions to issues that are more than skin-deep.
- The Cheater: Make achieving the Story Goal as difficult as possible. Leave no room for shortcuts. Don’t cheat your own system.
- The Doppelgänger: Do some research. Look up personality types, go on forums and see what people with similar traits and/or habits might do in the same situation as the character you’re trying to write.
That said, all of these problem characters can be avoided by following one simple rule: know your characters.
Not know about them. Know them. Like you know your siblings or closest friend. Figure out what your character is and is not capable of. Stick to it. Know his/her potential and how to bring it out. Study the vast rainbow of human personalities, and learn what makes them all different. Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and think of how something might make sense to them, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
Watch people. Learn about what they see when they stare out a car window, or what they feel when somebody says “I love you.” Is there a special reason why they like the color red?
We as writers are able to take abstract ideas and intangible traits and create beings that don’t actually exist. That’s magical. And yet, they feel so real to us. I talk about my characters as if they were actual people. That’s an important headspace to stay in.
Writers jump through all kinds of hoops to create the most interesting, emotionally-engaging characters we can. There are dozens of “best ways to do it”; some even have fame and success to back them up. Through the noise, it’s easy to miss the real point:
The best characters are the ones that are real. Human. Prince or pauper, Hero or Villain—if they’re human, they’re alive.
Have any of these five imposters ever snuck into your writing? How did you get them out?
Susan Sader lives in the fictional worlds of her own making. Preferably worlds that include elves and glow-sticks of destiny, quests on horseback, and music with lots of French horns and strings. But when reality checks in, she lives in rural Nebraska (a day north of Kansas and few degrees south of being baked alive) with her mother and three younger siblings.
She’s a part-time graphic designer, full-time artist and writer, and a lover of the unique, bizarre, and foreign. She’s been an OYAN student since 2011, and a writer since grade school, and will continue to be both for the foreseeable future. After all, reality is a lovely place, but she wouldn’t want to live there.